It was just a lunch. It was just a time to catch up, see what's been happening and what the future holds. That was the plan for an encounter with a friend of mine who also happened to be a student from the past. It was something I looked forward to doing. I feel very lucky. Often I have quipped, after my own kids, the students who have been part of my life are the best thing that has happened to me. I have been richly blessed.
A chance to get together to have lunch and catch up was just another opportunity to be with someone I have watched grow, mature and begin to blossom. We always hope that for our own kids. And I have hoped it for so many students I have known through the decades. That part never gets old. It happened for me when I was younger. It happened for my own kids. And it happens for so many students whom I have known.
It would be easy to write this and dismiss it as part of the human saga. But it is not a guarantee of the human saga. Of course people grow up physically. No one gets stuck at the same size at year one. But there are not guarantees when it comes to emotional maturing. And for sure, there is no predictable pattern for spiritual growth. So many times I have seen physically mature people who are still emotional teenagers and spiritual infants!
I would like to focus on the spiritual maturing. Of the three (physical, emotional and spiritual), this is the one that is least likely simply to develop on its own. In most cases, spiritual maturing requires some mentoring. Many people use the language of “mentor,” but have no clue the origin of that idea. Let’s take a quick look at where this “mentoring” language originates.
The idea is traced back to Homer’s classic, the Odyssey. Mentor was a friend of Odysseus, for whom the mythological book is named. As Odysseus prepared to go to the Trojan War, he appointed his friend, Mentor, to advise and tutor his son, Telemachus. Hence the term, mentor, has come into our language to describe an older person who advises and offers wisdom to one younger. It can also describe the role a person who is very competent in something plays in teaching a less competent person.
Another term I like to use for the mentor is sage. A sage is a wise person. This is how I see the mentor. He or she is a sage…a wise person. The mentor is happy to be with a younger, less competent person to impart some wisdom, to offer some encouragement, and to share hopes for everything the younger one can become.
I am eternally grateful to those in my earlier years who were spiritual mentors to me. There were a couple very special people. But it is not always some person. Sometimes the mentors are people of the past. The Biblical tradition has been a spiritual mentor for centuries. Who has not been helped by the story of David and Jonathan’s friendship? Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been mentor to countless billions of people through the ages. I have been mentored by the saints of the Church. And for me, the mentoring process is not limited to Christianity. A number of Buddhists have mentored me in the process of meditation and mindfulness. I am grateful.
I am not quite sure when I became a mentor for some younger ones. Perhaps that is the way it always is. In order to be an effective spiritual mentor, you need sufficient knowledge, experience, wisdom and maturity to have something to offer. It is difficult to know when you have sufficiency in these areas. Effective spiritual mentoring is less an issue of education and degrees and more a matter of having a gift to bestow.
It was at lunch that I realized again I am a spiritual mentor. I have some knowledge, which is useful. But I also realize the spiritual journey is more than knowledge---more than having right answers. I am happy to share some knowledge. But with that I also suggest the younger one acquire some experience to go along with the knowledge. It is one thing to know about God. It is another thing to experience God.
Most of what I have to offer as a mentor goes beyond knowledge. A significant part of the spiritual mentoring process entails listening, encouraging and supporting. I think about these as the crucible of spiritual growth and maturation. The spiritual journey is not a solitary pilgrimage. Even if we have to go live our own life, we never do it alone. We need others---mentors and community. They form the crucible.
Listening is crucial to spiritually mentoring someone. Hearing someone is fairly passive. Listening is participatory and active. As I listened at lunch yesterday, I was drawn deeply into her story. I listened to her questions and shared the unsureness, tentativeness and, yet, the ardent hope for everything she can spiritually imagine.
As a spiritual mentor, I care. That is why it is easy to encourage. Because I want nothing but the best, I can encourage and support the growth and deepening of the relationship with the Holy One. The effective spiritual mentor has no selfishness or vested interest in anything more than the deepest spiritual experience and life the other can have. Lunch costs me. But the gift I received was just that: grace.